Compellingly Realistic

RON BIERMAN was in the audience for Giocomo Puccini's 'La bohème' in San Diego


The first act of Opera À La Carte's production of La bohème featured costuming and well-used furniture that made Rodolfo's bohemian Parisian garret seem more real than the elaborate expensive sets and costumes of many other productions. After all, Rodolfo - tenor Adam Caughey - and his three friends are starving artists, and bohème is a notable example of opera verismo.

Who knew? Turns out you can stage a memorable version of La bohème with underappreciated local singers and a modest budget.

A set for Opera À La Carte, San Diego's 'La bohème'. Photo © 2024 Ron Bierman
A set for Opera À La Carte, San Diego's La bohème. Photo © 2024 Ron Bierman

I spoke briefly with Director Angelina Réaux before the first act. She said she'd spent four months shopping for props and costumes - seventy-four of the latter. Irregularly scheduled rehearsals were running during the same four months of shopping. It must have required enormous dedication and hard work for her and soprano Abla Hamza, the company's founder and Executive and Artistic Director, to keep the cast and support staff committed for that long when many probably had other commitments.

Abla Hamza
Abla Hamza

A decision to stage performances on four consecutive nights added to the challenge. A double set of singers was needed for the exhausting roles of Mimì, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello so that neither set sang Puccini's taxing vocal score on two successive evenings and risk damaging their voices. When I attended on the second evening, the performers sang and acted with entertaining strength and confidence.

Director Réaux said she'd moved the opera's setting a century ahead to occupied France during World War II. She explained it added an additional element of struggle to the story. In the Café Momus of the second act, for example, the original Alcindor is a French official dining with Musetta. Soprano Michelle Gallardo-Arias' interpretation of Quando m'en vo, one of Puccini's most popular arias, was one of the evening's highlights. When she rose to sing it in Réaux's setting, the official - Réaux's husband, baritone Michael Sokol - wears the uniform of a collaborating Nazi officer, and there is little doubt Musetta, his seductress and Marcello's ex, is flirting with Marcello - baritone Michael Segura - and humiliating Alcindor. She then compounds her risk when she exits with Marcello and leaves Alcindor with the bill for Marcello and his friends.

Michael Segura (left) and Michelle Gallardo-Arias
Michael Segura (left) and Michelle Gallardo-Arias

Gallardo-Arias' confident, flirtatious voice and steamy approach blended well with Segura's intense acting and strong voice. Their on and off love affair, like the action in the garret of the opening act, was compellingly realistic.

The café scene around the pair was filled with lively entertaining motion. A chorus, prepared by the versatile Sokol, included adults and six children who appeared to be having a lot of fun. The scene became even more hectic when toy-seller Papignol - tenor Cole Tornberg - entered on a bicycle trailing colorful ballons and made circles around the stage.

With the tiered seating that began at stage level, the cast was just a couple of yards away, at times even closer. That meant acting skill was more important than usual. Everyone in the audience could see facial expressions clearly, without the opera glasses of large venues.

That was an advantage throughout the production, and enhanced the comic effect when Rodolfo and his three garret roommates teased each other, fought with pillows or made sure the landlord Benoit - a second role for Sokol - had trouble collecting the rent.

Baritone Travis Sherwood excelled as Schaunader who constantly entertains his friends as he reacts to their problems and dispenses advice, often with a sly, good-natured exaggeration. He, Caughey, Segura and bass Shelby Condray (as Colline) sang well together, and the horseplay of a pillow fight and playful teasing made them seem real-life friends, which they may well be after four months of rehearsals.

From left to right: Travis Sherwood, Adam Caughey and Shelby Condray
From left to right: Travis Sherwood, Adam Caughey and Shelby Condray

Soprano Abla Hamza has a powerful voice and used it throughout, making her Mimì seem stronger than that of most interpreters, though still affecting as she sang Donde lieta usci, a highlight aria in the third act. But Mimì's first act duet with Rodolfo, another of Puccini's best-known arias, was a little less affecting than usual. Until his attractive tenor warmed up, Caughey seemed to be straining a bit to match Hamza when Puccini called for difficult leaps to the higher range.

Conductor Yewon Lee kept the singers and piano accompanist Suzanne Shick in synch. The orchestra is usually such an important part of a La bohème production that I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted to its absence. The difficult piano transcription is more than two hours long and was played with fitting emotions by Shick with only short breaks for set changes.

Yewon Lee
Yewon Lee

The company had expected to use the supertitles that have been common for decades, but it proved to be impractical to display them. They would have had to be mounted so high in the small theater that it would have been difficult to follow the action while reading them.

Executive Director Hamza founded the new company to offer opportunities for local professional opera singers as national opportunities continue to shrink. She also hopes to attract San Diegans who are new to opera by staging it in less intimidating venues with lower ticket prices.

Opera À La Carte, San Diego. From left to right: Shelby Condray, Abla Hamza and Adam Caughey with colleagues Maria, Michele, Kaitlin and Joshua
Opera À La Carte, San Diego. From left to right:
Shelby Condray, Abla Hamza and Adam Caughey with
colleagues Maria, Michele, Kaitlin and Joshua

Before the curtain rose, Réaux announced that the company plans to produce Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera next season, and made a pitch for much appreciated donations.

An Opera À La Carte, San Diego production
An Opera À La Carte, San Diego production

Based on its first production, Opera À La Carte, San Diego is a worthy cause.

Copyright © 24 May 2024 Ron Bierman,
San Diego, USA



 << Home              Next review >>